January 21, 2013

Just a Bunch of Books

One of the things that have been occupying my brain lately is the differences between thinking of a product library as a bunch of books versus thinking of it as a bunch of knowledge modules. In both models a library will have something called books that are used to organize the content because book is such a well understood concept for organizing written text. Readers expect to see a list of books that will contain smaller divisions called chapters. They understand how to navigate inside that abstraction.
The differences between a bunch of books and a bunch of knowledge modules is mostly a production concern. It will have an impact on the reader's experience since the resulting library can be very different, but it is not something a reader will need to have knowledge of to work with the published content. While I am an advocate of the module centric approach because I think it provides more flexibility for the production side and the potential for a richer experience for the reader, I do not believe that a library constructed using a book centric approach cannot have the same richness as a module centric one.
The major difference between the two approaches is how content is chunked into buckets. In a book centric model, the book is the primary chunk-level. Every smaller block used to flesh out a book is done so with a view to building a single entity. This may or may not lead to what is currently derided as the narrative style of writing where there is a flow from one small block to the next and each block is contextually dependent on the other small blocks in the book. It does mean that the possible small blocks are predetermined by the predetermined set of books. So library design goes something like:

* What users will our product have?

* What set of high level knowledge will they need to work with the product?

* What set of books should we create to cover the knowledge requirements of the users?

* Create a set of books

* For each book, determine what specific knowledge will the users need/expect?

* For each book, create the content to satisfy the user.

In a module centric model, the basic chunk level is much smaller. It would typically be at a level where each module contains a digestible block of knowledge that a user will find useful. It is an intentionally vague definition since I believe that for any given project, the module is best determined by the writers working on the project. This model can be used to create things that feel narrative since a module can contain content that bridges between modules or provides context that glues modules together. It doesn't, however, predetermine the set of possible knowledge modules around a set of big chunks. The books can be decided on late in the game as the content builds up and the way to organize them because clearer. Library design goes like this:

* Who will use the product?

* What will the users want to do with the product?

* What specific tasks will the users need to do to accomplish their goals?

* What knowledge will the users need to accomplish these tasks?

* What knowledge modules does this map to?

* Create the knowledge modules.

* What modules need to grouped to illuminate a task?

* Create collections that map into book-like structures.

* What glue is needed to hold the collections together?

* Create the glue.

The books are created after most of the content is written. This gives you some added agility in creating the library because you can modify the organization as new information arrives. I also gives you flexibility in terms of reusing information. There may be modules that go in more than one book and you can simply include the module without cloning or you can clone it if it makes more sense.
A collection-centric model does change the way writers work and does require some extra-discipline. Instead of working on a book and not needing to worry about what other writers are doing, writers in this model work on a set of modules and must consider how their work fits into the whole. For example, instead of writing a security guide, a writer might write all of the security related modules. Those modules may all be built up into a security guide, but a few may also be used in other books. Writers need to communicate with each other more to coordinate updates to shared modules.

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